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If you don’t stop yourself, your body will

Headaches? Feeling run down? Feel like there’s not enough time in the world?

Many of us use the term ‘stressed’ when we feel like this and automatically presume it is causing us harm. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing - a certain amount of stress is healthy as it results in high levels of alertness and cognitive performance.

However this is only true to a certain extent and does not mean the more stress you encounter, the healthier you’ll be. Despite the fact a great deal of stress can affect health, it can also benefit us in the future, for example when we encounter a similar situation, the stress response helps us to adapt in the way we need to in order to stay calm and relaxed.

Have a think…

Ask yourself this, if you were to get attacked in the middle of the street, resulting in loss of possessions through no fault of your own, would you allow yourself to be victimised similarly in the future? No, of course not: you would do anything in your power to prevent the situation from recurring, such as taking a different route or travelling with others in order to maintain your physical and mental health.

So why don’t we do this when our body reacts to stressful events? There is a common misconception that stress only causes psychological harm and therefore this damage can be rectified with a change in thought processes. This belief  has led to increased health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, due to the underestimation of the negative impact stress can have on our bodies.

Research has found that when we are stressed, various biological and behavioural changes happen - our blood pressure rises, we may overeat and exercise less, levels of cholesterol and blood clotting factors can rise, all contributing to an increased risk of heart disease. Stress and frustration can interact with our blood sugar regulation, which when combined with the poor dietary choices and lack of exercise already mentioned, over the long term can contribute to the development of diabetes.

Don’t panic…

It is important to understand that anyone can be affected by stress, but more importantly, anyone can deal with stress given the right help and support, such as the information and tools we provide during our workshops to become resilient. The first step to overcoming this hurdle however, is to understand the biological response to stress, the process occurs within our bodies that causes feelings of worry, guilt or fear.

What actually happens inside us?

Our bodies respond differently to stress, depending on the severity and continuity of the stress we encounter. When the body comes into contact with a stressful stimulus or event that could cause us immediate danger, it is first assessed in the brain.  If the stressor is recognised as a threat, a region inside our brain called the hypothalamus is activated, which in turn sends a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases the hormone ACTH through the blood stream and is passed down to the adrenal glands which are located by the kidneys.

The adrenal glands respond by activating two hormonal pathways.  First the hormone adrenaline is released instantaneously resulting in physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and sweaty palms. Other effects of adrenaline include cognitive benefits such as faster reaction times and sharper focus on the immediate present. We descibe this as the  ‘Fight or Flight’ response which is associated with the feelings of fear and anger. It is an essential survival mechanism, equipping us to deal with danger, which we share with most animal species.

A second hormone, cortisol, is released more slowly than adrenaline, and provided the danger is no longer present, this helps our body return to normal over the course of a few minutes or hours. The feeling that accompanies cortisol secretion is one of feeling energised and powerful, particularly once the original danger has passed.

When does stress become harmful?

In order for us to be able to recover from a stressful event, our cortisol levels must decrease to the point they were at prior to the stress response. Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson stated that ‘most stressful episodes are resolved quickly, one way or another’ as seen in wild animals. He argued that the natural biological evolutionary blueprint is to have long periods of mellow recovery after bursts of stress’.

If our cortisol levels remain high and fail to revert back to how they were, we struggle to relax and switch off, resulting in sleepless nights and as a result of this, more tiring days. The lack of sleep prevents our minds from functioning as they should, due to the inability of the brain's natural consolidation and repair mechanisms to function.  Another effect of high cortisol levels is a weakening of our immune system, preventing our bodies from fighting off any infections we may come into contact with. Ultimately, after extended periods of excessive stress, we may arrive at a stage called burnout, where exhaustion sets in and our ability to cope with pressure collapses.

Easier said than done…

However, are we really able to take a break following a stressful event? Whether the event takes place within your workplace or whether it’s within your home setting, do you have time to do nothing? Time to rest in order to recover? Modern day society has increased the amount of pressure we feel, in order to fit hundreds of activities into our day to day lives. Consequently stress is a norm, purely psychological, rather than the health threatening physical response it is.

The Resilience Programme understands many of us only have a certain amount of control over our work, it may not be realistically possible for us to take time to recover following a stressful event and therefore have created relaxation techniques and tools in order to help. Several of our tools are described in separate articles - see this article and others listed at the end of this page.

Applying these tools to everyday life

With regards to how these tools and techniques work within our bodies, before the stressor is acknowledged by the hypothalamus, it comes into contact with the amygdala, which is also known as the body’s alarm circuit. The amygdala can be set off even when we come into contact with a perceived stressor, which may not necessarily cause us harm for example when you think you see a spider in the corner of your eye however it turns out to be a little ball of fluff that couldn’t be less scary if it tried, so we giggle at ourselves for panicking so much. In order to decrease the probability of this happening, we need to be mindful and think about possible threats before they happen.

How do we do this?

It may seem impossible to do so, as many of the problems we encounter are unexpected, however, through using the relaxation techniques we provide within our workshops, you can learn to think ahead in certain situations you may be able to predict, and be prepared in those you can’t.

Let’s take driving for example. When we see someone driving dangerously, whether it be changing lanes at the last minute or slamming on their breaks, we may feel nervous which could lead to activation of the stress response, if the car was to come too close, or briefly edge over the marking in the middle of the road. Although it may seem a situation like this is completely out of our control, which may lead to more fear, the techniques and tools we provide allow you to stay calm and think reasonably. For example, ‘I’ll slow down and hold back to prevent any sudden change from affecting me’ or ‘I will go another route, although it will take an extra two minutes, it’s worth my safety’. This way of thinking allows the fear to decrease before the activation of the amygdala, allowing you to cope with these stressful events in a more manageable and successful way.

How we can help

We at The Resilience Programme aim to teach you ways to lower your cortisol levels in a short amount of time during your busy day, in addition to longer techniques that can be used at a more appropriate time, such as reversing the concept of ‘Time Out’ to ‘Time In’, involving deep relaxation that aims to calm both your body and your mind. This is a simple example of one of the tools used that allows you to focus on what you’re doing, as well as maintaining a healthy level of cortisol to avoid your body reaching the burnout stage. Please do not hesitate to contact us to find out more.

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